Well as the ALP ring round of their counterparts goes on — “‘allo I am Bill Shor- … no Pepe Le Gorgonzola. I am Pepe Le Gorgonzola. I am a great supporter of that wonnerful Mr Abbott, please keep ‘eem” — it seems to be doing little good. Who can guess? But it seems the political life of our Prime Minister is moving peacefully to its close, perhaps to get a little help from a morphine overdose to make the morning papers.
Concern over the actual reality of the situation means that debate about the Right has actually passed to the Right, with Chris Pyne’s hedging peekaboo comment about “hoping that the PM is still PM” next week, and reports of a secret meeting between Abbott and Turnbull, at which the latter was underwhelmed by the former, which is the default setting for the former these days. The delusional Greg Sheridan-Nick Cater position has gone. There is no longer a desire to spill the people, so as to elect allegedly saner people who can appreciate the genius of Mr Tony. There is now a desire to save the furniture.
So it’s worth taking a moment to return the attention to Labor to make a brief addendum to the umptythousand word article your correspondent wrote this week on Labo(u)r’s Love of Loss. The piece gained a number of reactions, one of which was to point out that there was quite a lot of thinking going on about policy and new proposals, and such. And so there is, as I duly noted in the article. But there is an absence of discussion of how and what the world is now, how people, groups, classes are formed, and how their desires and understandings of the world change — and have changed since the 1980s, when Labor last had unchallenged hegemony. And it goes without saying, there’s no projection of that from the leadership centre, no theme being developed that could go grow into a proposition to the people.
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But there was another reaction and that was to say that Labor needs to regain its soul and renew the fight for equality, for the poor, for Aborigines and to fight the good fight on issues of obvious political-ethical urgency, such as climate change, and the simple denial of it. Labor funerals provide a sort of rallying point for such sentiments. Gough last year, now Tom Uren.
And of course Labor should fight all these battles. But the idea that Labor has become something of a empty space because it no longer puts these things at the centre of its politics — that I think is false. Indeed it leads to a yet more cynical, atomised and minimal program from the existing centre of Labor, on the grounds that all that is being otherwise suggested is hopelessly nostalgic.
The plain fact is that Labor can no longer renew a progressive politics based solely on fighting for the genuinely oppressed, the poor and the marginalised, because even added together, they no longer constitute anything like a majority. And large-scale schemes such as climate change cannot do it either, because they are simply too general to motivate in sufficient cases, even when people agree with what is being said.
Quite simply, Labo(u)r/progressive parties and their activist supporters have to recognise that the core class-base of such parties is now a relatively prosperous group of people, and that the role of such parties is to fight for, and offer them, a pathway to better lives — freer, with more real choices, greater protection from the whim of fate and tragedy. That does involve a fight for equality — or against inequality — but people err if they believe that that can be the principal fight that can be had. That’s both because only relatively small gains in reversing inequality in traditional ways can now be made, and because the cause can’t rally people in sufficient numbers.
Progressive parties pass through a key moment in their history — at some point their core constituency is no longer living at a more or less subsistence level. Once a certain band of moderate comfort has been achieved, equality rapidly falls away as a passion — as does self-conception of oneself as a class, to a substantial degree. The “frugal comfort” of the Harvester judgment appears like penury today, and it wasn’t really until the 1950s that even frugal comfort was achieved on a mass basis. Changes in the nature of work created class decomposition, and the gap between the poor and marginalised and Labor’s mass class widened until their interests no longer coincided. At that point Labor may be able to help the very poor and marginal, but it can no longer represent them.
The call for Labor to find its “soul” is a nostalgia for what Labor could be in the last era when all these causes were still sufficiently fused to create a mass movement. Hence the nostalgia for Whitlam and Uren, whose lives lay across that full transition, and were part of the making of it.
Now the big causes like equality, and the more individualised ones, such as piecemeal improvements in peoples lives, have become disjunctive.
Class politics has become dominated by the “free rider” problem. Most people in the broad working-middle class simply do not believe that concerted effort on their part will make sufficient variation in the advance of equality (in relation to an upper-middle/professional class) as would make it worth their while becoming actively politically involved — and whatever will happen will happen anyway. The same goes for climate change and other such overarching causes. And it is not merely a change in interests, but also a change in consciousness that has occurred. As life has become more individualised and atomised — partly by prosperity itself, i.e. suburbanisation — thinking in class and collective terms has fallen away.
This is dismaying to many people who want Labor and progressive politics to offer a collective and altruistic meaning at the centre of their lives. But it should be a liberation. If the basic means of life no longer has to be struggled for, then there is the opportunity to reorient a progressive politics to the other goal that was always within it — the drive for a life that is much freer, more self-directed, with greater free time, if people want, more flexible lives, more responsive to present needs. That has a dimension of equality too, since the “better life” is something that the rich have access to. But by and large it is not now seen in those terms. The large class that Labor should be able to claim see their lives in such individual/familial terms — an arc of life, in which one has to attend to pretty specific gains — that notions of exploitation or unfairness have fallen away, too.
The “realist” faction in Labor have taken that absence of class ideas to mean that there should be no ideas at all. This has left a vacuum and favoured the Right — for the Right can always put budget etc issues in a concrete and individual way, and Labor is confined to a more abstract manner, even when it talks about “jobs jobs jobs” (of little interest to those who have them) and a fetish on education and advancement, far beyond the desires or expectations of many people, for themselves and for their children.
By believing that there is no other way to have big transformative ideas other than they be collective and class-based, Labor is missing out on the move it needs to make to transform itself into an agenda-setting party, rather than one that it is a perpetual crisis of ideas. Two of the key achievements of the Gillard years — the NDIS, and Gonski education reforms — were in that direction, but something bigger in people’s lives is required, such as significant action of housing affordability and a real revolution in childcare that would offer people a real, immediate and significant difference in the quality of their lives but is representative of a larger idea about life, and what it should be. That transforms such individual advancements into an expanded politics and one of affirmative right — the right to have access to good housing without it swallowing your life, to fully combine work with raising children, and to have the time and energy to fully enjoy the latter. Labor could win the election hands down with the quadrilateral of saving Medicare, affordable housing, a childcare revolution, and a steady management down of the deficit — so long as it made these matters a question of right, of things that a prosperous people should have access to. Such a politics of rights not only challenges the Right to reply and fight on that ground, but it makes it possible to specific policies for the poorest and most marginalised to those larger causes — without being caught in the trap of Labor being either venal or bleeding heart, with no space in between.
That is how Labor re-expresses its guiding philosophy of equality and humanity — by anchoring it in making good lives better that would not otherwise be made so, and taking the poorest with them by the same motion. It is a politics that renounces the easy consolation of heroism or charity, and does not ground itself in the need to proffer salvation. It does not disqualify people from consideration simply because they have become prosperous — a communication of indifference, which Labor has got rather too good at.
But they, the poor and marginalised, need their own parties now. Labor cannot represent them, nor the Greens. In a preferential and proportional system, there is no reason for them not to. And Labor’s progressives and activists, to be a party fighting for the best life for the most people, have to talk back to the sentimentality and easy, outdated missions. If it is only around funerals that you find your purpose, then your project has a real problem.
Nothing compared to the Libs of course, who may all be reaching for the morphine soon enough. But their pain will be over eventually. And ours will return. Whatever alleviation of the symptoms, the disease remains untouched.